MANAGED TO GET out of Alhambra Thursday at 3 p.m. — somehow — leaving rooms and drawers finally empty of 3 1/2 years of joint-custody accommodation on Monterey St. and decades of material acquisition in L.A. before that, the front porch a-clutter with boxes, rugs and assorted bowls and glassware for the Vietnam Veterans to pick up Friday morning. This after three earlier pickups to address my unprecedented downsizing needs, that included selling tables, beds, desks and potted ficus trees on craigslist, plus 2 garage sales, dragging stuff to the curb and a handoff of heavy tools to Javier, my El Salvador fencing associate and concrete man. The volume and logistics approached a military operation, my personal version of getting out of Iraq. Yet for all the downsizing, Atlas Van Lines still packed 8 thousand pounds of stuff in my name, including a Chinese piano, to be delivered to a Public Storage facility in Farmers Branch until further review of my life’s direction.
Mercifully relieved of all possessions but for what I could stuff into the single cab space of my Toyota pickup (suitcase, two computers, a bag of food, CDs for the road and a small boom box — no CD player in the truck) I found the 210 east just at the start of rush hour and began the trip back to Texas, a few months short of the 30th anniversary of my coming west to explore the wonders of Hollywood and California via the LA Herald Examiner in May, 1983.
I could not have foreseen then that the source of my livelihood as a journalist would one day be eliminated by technology, that my marriage would fail along with Lehman Brothers, that in my 50s I would become a fence contractor and tradesman to make ends meet until I could no longer afford to live in California at all. Or that my aging, ailing mother, Lu, the folksinger, would need me to come home to cook her meals, take out the trash, dispense her meds and drive her to doctors in search of elusive chronic pain relief.
After inching through the 4 p.m. slog of eastbound traffic, my head expanding with the evidence I was finally doing this, I was off on a nighttime glide to the Colorado River and, beyond that, Phoenix, me and 10,000 semis hauling the contents of America’s and China’s GNP. I crashed at a Best Western before midnight, bone tired from the month-long evacuation of Monterey St., then slept through continental breakfast hours before saddling up and heading out in search of a Starbucks. I found one in the “Arts District” of Phoenix, that massive and improbable imposition of urbanism on the Sonoran Desert that even the one acquaintance of mine who lives there calls “ugly,” a sun-blasted grid of yawning streets, parking lots and acres of mottled brown. But Starbucks is Starbucks, with smart-looking young people hunched over laptops and lattes — these marooned here in Arizona presumably for reasons beyond their control. I would have savored the coffee a bit more if I had known that what lay ahead on Interstates 10 and 20 would be Starbucks-free zones – and not just Starbucks but anything resembling the 20-years-on rediscovery of fresh ground. Later in the afternoon, I wasted 45 minutes stumbling through a maze of massive downtown construction in Tucson looking for more java — without success. I did pass Ronstadt Square, a tribute to the native daughter whose fame has lent at least a hint of romance to the dusty old pueblo 60 miles north of the Mexican border now supporting half a million humans, plus the University of Arizona. But in the harsh winter light it looked like a smaller Phoenix. Larry McMurtry lives here?
ONWARD TO NEW MEXICO and El Paso, an arid moonscape of stunted life forms that offers the Intestate traveler the single favor of light traffic and a speed limit of 80 mph, with the option of breaking 100 if you’ve got the wheels and daring for it. I was content to keep the old Tundra at 75-80. For diversion and to avoid life-threatening high-speed brain lull, I chose a bi-polar audio menu of really bad country music on the radio dial and CD lectures of Professor Robert Greenberg from his course “How to Listen and Understand Great Music” — the Rondo and Sonata forms, Mozart’s relationship with his father, Joseph Haydn’s personal virtue as a human being, which brought to mind his antithesis: my divorce lawyer who was suing me in small claims court for $7,800 after underperforming and overcharging me. Suggested pic in dictionary definition of “predator”: divorce attorney. I have yet to meet anyone who has been through a divorce who doesn’t think the practice of family law is a racket, an absolute racket.
As for the current country music hit parade, I listened for the stimulation akin to donning a hair shirt. That stuff coming out of the radio made the miles go by as I pondered again and again how many songs the robots in Nashville can write about memories of that old tire swing down by the lake in the summer of whatever south of the Mason-Dixon, when the gal in those cutoffs climbed into your truck for the ride of her life and you tore it up under the Friday night lights and learned to love Old Glory, God and Hank, took a lickin’ from your daddy and kicked ass for the US of A. Damn, ain’t them sweet dreams now that you’re humping it on some job site, the other side of 40, but no problema, Jack, ‘cause you got a roof over your head, cupla cute kids, a good lovin’ woman and a six pack of Lone Star! Ain’t life great, bro? “That’s Just Me” is a title that says it all, probably written by some Vanderbilt grad driving a Porsche. I listened, as I always do, perversely, to this endlessly mawkish and manipulative, musically moribund sour mash of pop gruel, reminded of the trove of genuinely vibrant, poetic and creative folk/country music out there in America, as mysteriously forbidden on the radio as drinkable coffee on the Interstate. But both kept me awake.
“Brain Juice” the label read on the coffee dispenser at one typical Interstate Stop n Shop next to a Texaco station in southern New Mexico. Clever. A reminder that there is another nation out here beyond the reach of NPR and Anthony Bourdain, one where the brain juice served is generally an insipid, tongue-scalding pale brown liquid with powdered creamer available for those who take milk. But the cashier always says, “Have a great day.”
I reached El Paso at sundown on Friday and wanted to push on, but my body thought better of it and I found a dreary La Quinta with an adjoining Denny’s right by the I-10 and the airport. La Quinta ($81) is headed down toward Motel 6 in splendor, with dishrags for bath towels and dirty caulking on the tub. Maybe I just got a bad room. It was the second one they offered facing the freeway after I was unable to get into the first because the key card didn’t work, even after I returned to the office and they recharged it. “It’s not our problem, it’s the door,” the manager announced curiously after the second try. This was my cue to move on down the road when she generously gave me the key to another room facing the freeway, the one with the dirty tub. When you’re as tired as I was and can get the door open, who needs a shiny bathroom and good towels?
I splashed some cold water on my face and walked the 100 feet to Denny’s, “America’s Diner.” I hadn’t been to America’s Diner in awhile and wasn’t expecting much, but I remembered getting toast with an omelet. That was somewhere besides El Paso. My waiter didn’t seem aware of the concept of toast, and a search had to be launched for a bottle of Tabasco. I tried speaking Spanish to improve our communication but it brought no toast or even tortillas. I asked him if the convenience store on the corner sold cerveza. He had no idea. Such is life in the fast food lane of the desert Southwest, where you travel back in time while not sure you wanted to go there. The most arresting view in El Paso is at night south and west across the Rio Grande to the lights of the much larger and notoriously violent Juarez, its presence twinkling innocently as far as the eye can see, like the San Fernando Valley seen from Mulholland Drive.
I KNEW I HAD 640 miles left to make Dallas on Saturday, so I arose before dawn, inhaled a bowl of cereal in the “dining area,” shared only with two young meatheads bragging about how many Red Bulls each could chug in a day (“I don’t need no coffee”), each finding great mirth in how high the toast (yes, toast!) jumped from the slots in the toaster. And this at 6:30 a.m. SNL skit, I thought, a recurring one that could be titled I Don’t Need No Coffee! I hurried to get on the road.
Twenty miles into the morning, I had to pass through the Border Patrol station, where a young brown-skinned woman stepped up to my drivers window with a clipboard, looked me over and asked where I was headed. Was I an American citizen? Since the bed of the pickup was empty except for a Whole Foods tote I couldn’t get in the cab, there wasn’t much to arouse suspicion – 65-year-old white guy with gray hair in a truck with “Bungalow Fences & Gates” stenciled on the door. I told her the truth, that I was headed to Dallas to see my mother, then felt a pang of regret that I had done so. Why did she deserve to know anything about me beyond whether I had a current drivers license and registration? Had I spent 30 years in LA and still not learned a good Jack Nicholson impression? (“Honey, I’m goin’ where the lawyers and other back-stabbing liars and thieves can’t find me. Wanna come?”) If she had asked me if I knew Jack Nicholson, I could have said, no, but that I met him once and written a story about him but that now I was in retreat from the land of movie stars and pleased to have the Washingtonia Palm in my rear view mirror. Maybe she read my mind. As the barrier arm bobbed up, allowing me passage east, she simply said, “OK.”
More moonscape for hours upon hours, with professor Greenberg providing an odd, enjoyably pedantic counterpoint on the boom box. You wonder how anyone ever settled the Trans Pecos or could stand the desolation now? Jesus. Then come the Gaza-like cities of Odessa and Midland, also treeless, godforsaken wastelands of oil production, decorated with metal sheds of equipment rentals, pipe companies and the occasional “gentleman’s club.” “We’re Hiring” signs posted on a lot of buildings. A truly scary thought.
I pulled off the Interstate in Big Spring for lunch and resuscitation, suckered by the current radio ads for Dairy Queen, proclaiming “That’s What I Like About Texas.” Catchy. It had been a couple decades since my last Dairy Queen burger. Possibly my taste bud recall doesn’t stretch that far, plus they might vary in quality by county, but the Big Spring version made In N Out seem like Spago. ARGH. Almost inedible, leathery patty with a miserly topping of indiscernible dressing, accompanied by sad, calcified French fries. This is definitely not what I like about Texas. Yet there were folks in here chowing down merrily on theirs, the kids hankering for the non-dairy Tasty Freeze to follow. Maybe I’m spoiled, by now an L.A. Texan.
THE COMFORTING SIGHT of trees and other vegetation, along with some small contours in the topography, showed up around Abilene, with the promise of life as we know it not far off and Fort Worth now looming a couple hours to the east. The check engine light came on ominously in the truck, and I worried that I wouldn’t get home today after all and might have to face another Dairy Queen meal for dinner. But the Tundra was humming and I didn’t smell anything burning so I kept the pedal to the metal, saying a prayer to St. Christopher. OK, not really – I bailed on the Catholic Church after 4th grade — but I got there anyway, in sunny, spring-like weather, 67 degrees outside on a giant digital thermometer, in contrast to the icy siege that froze the asses of the national media for the Super Bowl held at the new Cowboys stadium two years ago this same weekend. New stadiums, new concert halls, new buildings, new roads — a lot has changed in 30 years, as I had learned or heard about on visits back. Texas is a red state, big time, and Dallas the last refuge of the frat boy president who invaded Iraq and stomped our civil liberties. Nothing made me more wary of returning home than watching the fans in Arlington give W. a standing ovation before Game 1 of the World Series a few years ago. Could I live there again? I wondered.
The summer beforeI left for college, I worked for the Austin Bridge Co., helping build the LBJ Freeway, the I-635 beltway that now circles Dallas. The new highways have Republican names and those of football heroes. Fort Worth is where the west begins (it is said) and where I used to drive over from Dallas on the turnpike to cover concerts by the Eagles and Bob Dylan and everybody else because Tarrant County Convention Center was bigger than any venue in Dallas — then. As I barrel past downtown Cowtown, under my wheels I discover that the turnpike has been replaced by the much spiffier and better-paved Tom Landry Freeway that leads lickety-split to the President George Bush (daddy) Tollway that heads north to the now-completely-under-construction-again-so-as to-make-it-wide-as-a-jet-runway 635 that leads me to humble Farmers Branch and the house I grew up in on the northwestern edge of Dallas. I make it from El Paso to Dallas in 9.5 hours, arriving at Eric Lane in Central Standard Time by 5 o’clock.
The neighborhood was quiet as ever though the bright white-lettered logo of a Chase Bank now anchors the end of the block. I no longer knew the neighbors and didn’t expect a reception or acknowledgment that I was back. I quickly unloaded the truck and drove over to see mom in the nursing home/rehab facility, 20 minutes away on Preston Rd. below Belt Line. It was a manicured, pleasant place, with a fountain out front, lots of container plants and cheerful staff. I called ahead so she was expecting me, though time had become an unreliable calculation to her in recent months. When I walked into her semi-private room she was lying on top of the covers of an adjustable hospital bed, dressed for dinner in a violet sweatshirt and black leggings, her silver hair cropped short. “Hey, aren’t you a sight for sore eyes,” she said before I hugged her. It was the standard greeting I had been hearing for decades and that went back to her youth in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. I couldn’t help but notice that she was rubbing her calves incessantly, the ones that had been throbbing with nerve pain for a year ever since she fell on her back while entering a stranger’s sunken living room — and that a surgeon had promised (95 percent success rate was his stat) would no longer hurt after he trimmed the vertebrae impinging on the sciatic nerve.
SHE SMILED faintly and said, “It still hurts, but I guess it takes time.” She is 89 and, lying there, looked smaller and more frail than I wanted to realize after a lifetime of knowing her. As we spoke, I could tell she had only a tentative grasp of the trip I had made and that her memory was shot, which she herself acknowledged. “My memory is shot,” she said when I corrected her on what day it was. But she was looking forward to going home when they would let her and she hoped that would be soon. I helped her out of bed and escorted her carefully down the hall toward the dining room. She clutched my shoulder with her left hand, using the right to balance her short steps with a colorful wooden cane she bought 40 years ago in Mexico just because it was beautiful. She said she was looking forward to driving again and shopping for groceries on her own. “When I’m better,” she said, without a trace of irony.
She urged me not to stay but to return the next morning. I said sure and drove back “home,” struck by the unfamiliarity of the new streetscapes, the otherness of the Texas license plates all around me, the time-bend of all this interrupted by the recurring, unavoidable question of money. How were my ex-wife and I going to get our son and daughter through the colleges they deserved, even with financial aid? The world had changed. And first, I had to pay off the lawyer in Pasadena.
In a house empty except for me and Simon the cat, I woke up slowly in the guest bedroom on Sunday and didn’t get out of bed until noon. In the Dallas Morning News I read the lead story about how Baby Boomers, already hammered by lost jobs and reduced incomes in the recession, were now squeezed between caring for older parents and their unemployed children. But it was Super Bowl Sunday. Nobody was going to be thinking about stuff like that, maybe not even me.